Exercise outside requires a suitable outside

Our national and state governments have appropriately recognised the need for outdoor physical activity in this time of domestic lockdown, and our most attractive trails and paths have been chockablock with riders and walkers, young and old.

It’s crowded yes, but it is actually a great thing to see.

Physical activity is essential to life, and we all need more of it; more heartbeats, more tired muscles, and more clear heads.

However it is also clear that we need more of the attractive spaces that can lure us outside to commune with nature, and soon we hope, with our fellow humans.

A reason we have reached peak activity on our beautiful trails and calm, green streets is that there are so few of them.

When everyone wants some physical activity all at once, they just can’t fit.

There is plenty of barren, sterile asphalt that—for the moment—is virtually empty.

No-one wants to go there, certainly not for recreation.

The fact is that urban planning and physical activity are inextricably linked: you don’t get physical activity without well planned, attractive environments.

In a fortunate accident of timing, the Danish Health Authority has just released a review of how this all works: How the urban environment impacts physical activity.

Published in English, it says physical activity is essential for public health, and can prevent premature death and a number of diseases, e.g. cardiovascular diseases and type II diabetes. Physical activity also boosts our mental health and the sense of well-being.

"The options for physical activity are not limited to indoor facilities, i.e. sports facilities, indoor pools, or fitness centres,” the review says.

"There are also outdoor options, where our activity level to a large extent is determined by the environment, we move in. Bike lanes are an invitation to ride a bike, for example.

"Footpaths encourage walking rather than using the car, and safe school routes make it easier for parents to decide whether to let children walk or bike to school rather than drive them.

"All in all, beautiful, exciting and safe environments encourage movement, and hence, the design of the urban environment is essential for citizen’s level of physical activity.”

Among the conclusions:

Diversified use of areas: There should be many different destinations, e.g. homes, shops, parks, bus stops and schools, within walking and biking distance as well as access to, e.g. recreational areas and facilities.

Infrastructure: The option of walking, biking and using public transportation must be available. It is essential that there are destinations and facilities within 400-1600 meters from the residence in combination with a large number of local bus, metro and train stops. The infrastructure should be coherent, structured like a grid and not have any unnecessary intersections that cause unnecessary stops on the way.

Aesthetics: More people would be physically active with urban spaces that are perceived as aesthetic, comfortable and attractive.